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Family Visits vs Family Vacations

As a kid, some of my favorite family trips were when we got to go see family in Washington, Wisconsin and Texas. Growing up, our nuclear family was rather alone. Sure, we had really good friends who became almost like family, but that just isn’t the same as actually having family around. Though Gigi had been born and raised in California, her parents and sister Fabby all moved out of state, and Pappy had left Texas behind first for the Navy and then after graduating from University of Texas at Austin, to find work in California.

From left to right: Funcle, Fabby, GGP, GGM, Gigi, Pappy and in front is Jackalope and Fat Mama (Aug. 1992)

Growing up, it was just us. No aunts and uncles around. No cousins to play with. No grandparents to watch us after school. But on the upside, by the time I was in 6th grade, I had traveled more than any other kid I knew. For us, family trips were a mix of traveling to visit out of state and out of area relatives (for a time, Fabby and Funcle lived in the Bay Area of California while we lived in Southern California, camping trips with family-like friends, and family vacations where we met extended family for a fun destination adventure. But ultimately, every trip, every vacation, every bit of travel we did as kids was focused on spending time with our extended family.

Because we did not grow up with our extended family as part of our daily, weekly, or even monthly routines, it was important to Gigi and Pappy that we have a connection to our relatives. This is why nearly all their vacation time and a goodly amount of their travel budget (which for most of my childhood was nil) was devoted to family travel and vacations. Which, as a kid, was amazing!

Hanging with cousins in Texas; Jackalope is in the middle and Fat Mama is hugging her cousin in blue (Dec. 1991)

I loved flying out to Texas every few years to see my cousins, many of whom were around my age. Every summer, I looked forward to spending a week in Washington at my grandparents' house where we would pick raspberries, build driftwood forts, and go fishing. Even our rare trips out to Wisconsin to see Fabby and Funcle made a big enough impression that Uncle Andy, Jackalope, and Aunty Coco eventually moved there, just outside of Madison.

Additionally, we would periodically take vacations to fun domestic locations with our extended family. Once, Pappy took us all plus Nana Fay to Maui. Another time, Fabby arranged a family vacation to Orcas Island on the Washington coast to celebrate my grandparents' 70th wedding anniversary. There have been multiple cousin vacations to Yosemite and one BIG road trip through multiple National Parks that ended in an awesome family vacation in Yellowstone. That one was so fun that Fat Papa and I are about to repeat the trip with Itsy Bitsy and meet all the same participants (Gigi, Pappy, Fabby, Funcle, Jackalope) plus a few extras (Uncle Andy, Aunty Coco, E-Man).

Now that I am a parent, I understand more why it was so important to Gigi and Pappy to prioritize family trips and family vacations rather than traveling with just our nuclear family. However, I still get in arguments with Gigi and Pappy over the way Fat Papa and I choose to use our precious vacation time. Arguments is too strong a word … let’s say … disagreements.

Fat Papa and I really like to travel. But, before we had Itsy Bitsy we didn’t really have the time or money to do so. It has really only been in the last few years that Fat Papa has been in a job that provides him the perfect trifecta of salary, time-off, and good management that has allowed him to feel like he (by extension, we) really can travel. Which of course begs the question … where do we go?

Gigi, and to a much lesser extent Pappy, is always on me to spend our vacation time and vacation budget visiting family. She always wants to know when we plan to fly out to Wisconsin next. When are we planning to get her grandkids together. “You know your schedule is more flexible than theirs, so when are you going out?” And it isn’t that I don’t want to go see my brother, sister-in-law and nephew (plus other family), but we’ve been there, done that. I want to go to new places, I want to see new destinations, I want to experience new things.

So, I like to break family trips into two categories: family travel (when you travel to where your family lives) and family vacations (when you travel to a neutral destination with your extended family). Can you guess which one I prefer? I’ll give you one guess as to which my family seems to prefer.

Now, I will fully admit, there are things that Wisconsin does WAY better than California … cheese aside, we are not getting into a dairy fight … fireworks and Fourth of July is one of our favorite things about Wisconsin. For this reason, Fat Papa and I have made an effort to take a family trip to Wisconsin every year (or at least every other year) to celebrate Fourth of July with our family, to have fun BBQing, and blowing stuff up.

Since fireworks are banned where we live, Fat Papa goes a little crazy in Wisconsin, 'tis the Fillhardt way (July 2021)

But the problem with visiting any place over and over again is that eventually there isn’t really anything new or interesting to do, especially if you are going at the same time of year, every year. Or at least that is how it feels. And this is where my problem with family travel comes into play.

Since we have a limited amount of vacation days every year and a limited travel budget, I want to make sure we are making the most of our family travel. I love seeing my family, but I really don’t like visiting my family. I would much prefer to go on vacation with my family. But that is its own can of worms. Getting everyone to agree on a budget, destination, accommodations, activities, and food is ducking challenging to say the least.

Orcas Island with cousins, Fabby, Funcle, Gigi, Pappy; Fat Mama and Jackalope are in top left kayak (Aug. 2007)

Then of, course, there is the other … other … problem of travel. Fat Papa, Itsy Bitsy, and I travel WAY MORE than the rest of our family AND have a TON of out of state friends and family who want us to come visit. We have family in Wisconsin, Texas, New Mexico, New York, and Southern California (which is practically another state) in addition to close family friends in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Washington, DC. We love going to visit all of the people we know who live far away from us, and certainly do not see most of them as often as we would like.

Balancing Fat Papa’s PTO with visiting friends and family vs vacations to unique destinations has been really difficult. When we choose to visit friends, we offend family. When we choose to travel as a nuclear family to a destination, a friend is sad we didn’t see them. When we travel with one side of the family, the other is disappointed that we didn’t vacation with them, too. I feel like we are always being pulled in different travel directions. And not always toward a destination that we really wanted to visit.

We keep asking family to join us in Hawaii but so far only grandparents have come with us (April 2018)

However, now that Itsy Bitsy is five-years-old, I have to keep reminding myself that family focused trips … be it visiting family or vacationing with family … are going to be the most fulfilling to her. When I was a kid, I didn’t care where we were going or what we were doing, just as long as we were seeing family, especially if it was my cousins.

Like me as a child, Itsy Bitsy doesn’t live close to her cousins. Though she is lucky to see her grandparents regularly, she greatly misses Aunty Coco, Jackalope, Uncle Andy, Fabby and Funcle. But there is no one she misses more or talks about more than E-Man. These two cousins are exactly a month apart in age with extremely complementary personalities. The two of them get along so well and love each other so much that Jackalope and I work hard to get them together multiple times a year.

E-man and Itsy Bitsy in Pismo Beach (Jan. 2020)

I cannot even begin to describe how much it fills Itsy Bitsy’s cup to spend time with E-Man and the rest of the family. She really could care less if we are hiking, watching movies, building LEGO bricks, swimming, reading books, adventuring, making snowmen, or just hanging around the house. As long as E-Man is there doing it with her, she is overjoyed!

For this reason, I have been putting more of an effort into our trips to visit family in Wisconsin and including our Wisconsin family in what would normally be nuclear family vacations. And let me tell you, ducky friends, yes it means more effort on my part, but it also means that more of BOTH Itsy Bitsy’s and my travel needs are being met.

A trip we took to Wisconsin this February is a great example. I am not a huge fan of the snow. That is, I will gladly go visit the snow for a few days but I am not a snow sport person. Growing up in Southern California I never learned to ski or snowboard and we visited the snow maybe three times growing up that I can remember (at least two of those were Christmas related). But when Elizabeth started making noise about wanting to see the snow, I figured we could either drive 5 hours to Tahoe or fly 5 hours to Wisconsin. So, she and I ditched Fat Papa and flew 5 hours to visit our Wisconsin family.

This trip to Wisconsin was different in a ton of ways than our normal family trip to visit. First and foremost, we were visiting in the winter rather than the summer. Second, I treated this trip more like a vacation. Previously when we have visited family, I did not make plans. Our main goal was to see family and do the things they want to do, after all we are their guests. But this time, thinking of the trip as a snow vacation, I collaborated with Aunty Coco to actually plan activities for us and the kids.

Aside from typical snow activities like planned days of sledding, ice skating, and snow play, we also made reservations for a uniquely Wisconsin experience … a massive indoor water park resort in the dead of winter. I think it was perhaps this more than anything else that made the trip feel more like a vacation to me than other trips to visit family. However, be it the water park or the planned snow activities, this trip really did feel more like a vacation.

Additionally, Itsy Bitsy and E-Man had a blast hanging out together. Even though most of our time was spent inside the house … it was below freezing outside the majority of the time … they enjoyed each other’s company in a way they don’t on vacations. Because they had all of E-Man’s toys to play with, they were fully entertained, able to play collaboratively and independently. Getting time in the snow and at the water park was just a bonus for them.

With the amount of fun Itsy Bitsy has with her cousin, and the great enjoyment I get from traveling with my family, I think most major travel as a nuclear family is probably going to have to wait until Itsy Bitsy is older. Then I will use exotic destinations and luxury travel as a bribe to get my teenager to spend time with Fat Papa and me.

Hopefully that won’t be the only reason. But unless we suddenly decide to move to Wisconsin, I think for the time being our travel is going to focus around family visits and family vacations.

The pure joy of Itsy Bitsy and E-Man makes it hard not to spend our vacation time getting these two together. I can work harder to figure out ways of incorporating family travel and world travel. And in the mean time, I will treat family visits more like vacations to make sure my cup is being filled too. After all, there is more to Wisconsin than fireworks, family, and fried cheese curds.

Itsy Bitsy boarding our plane home after visiting the Wisconsin Family (Feb. 2022)

So wherever our next adventure takes us, you can be sure it will be fun filled and family centric.

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